On Risk, Playgrounds and Growing Up to be Capable

by Mr. Hugh Burke


Meadowridge, Soccer
Imagine: An adult is hit by a soccer ball on a playground, and unfortunately suffers a concussion. What would you do, if you administered a school? An administrator in a public school in Toronto faced this issue recently, and so banned the use of inflated balls in the schoolyard.

In some schools, games of tag and other chase and elimination games have been banned, following particular complaints of injury or the bruising of self-esteem.

Some places have removed playgrounds, because there is some fear that children may hurt themselves.

At our school, we are very aware of risk, and – because of that awareness – we will not be banning tag, banning balls, or removing playgrounds. A friend of mine, Stephen Smith, who teaches and writes at Simon Fraser University (phenomenology and Physical Education) notes that risk is an important component of development in children. It is through the taking of risks that children learn to be competent, to overcome fear, to work with others, and to measure their own abilities and learn new ones. When children play outside, they are often very shrewd judges of their own capabilities; they will only go so far up the rope climber unless they are certain of their own capacities. Their sense of their own self-worth is developed through increasing their competence, not through avoiding challenge.

What is very interesting is some recent evidence and thought regarding the essential role of risk in childhood development. From the New York Times:

After observing children on playgrounds in Norway, England and Australia, Dr. Sandseter identified six categories of risky play: exploring heights, experiencing high speed, handling dangerous tools, being near dangerous elements (like water or fire), rough-and-tumble play (like wrestling), and wandering alone away from adult supervision. The most common is climbing heights.
Climbing equipment needs to be high enough, or else it will be too boring in the long run,” Dr. Sandseter said. “Children approach thrills and risks in a progressive manner, and very few children would try to climb to the highest point for the first time they climb. The best thing is to let children encounter these challenges from an early age, and they will then progressively learn to master them through their play over the years.”

Sometimes, of course, their mastery fails, and falls are the common form of playground injury. But these rarely cause permanent damage, either physically or emotionally. While some psychologists — and many parents — have worried that a child who suffered a bad fall would develop a fear of heights, studies have shown the opposite pattern: A child who is hurt in a fall before the age of nine is less likely as a teenager to have a fear of heights.

By gradually exposing themselves to more and more dangers on the playground, children are using the same habituation techniques developed by therapists to help adults conquer phobias, according to Dr. Sandseter and a fellow psychologist, Leif Kennair, of the Norwegian University for Science and Technology.

“Risky play mirrors effective cognitive behavioral therapy of anxiety,” they write in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, concluding that this “anti-phobic effect” helps explain the evolution of children’s fondness for thrill-seeking. While a youthful zest for exploring heights might not seem adaptive — why would natural selection favor children who risk death before they have a chance to reproduce? — the dangers seemed to be outweighed by the benefits of conquering fear and developing a sense of mastery.

“Paradoxically,” the psychologists write, “we posit that our fear of children being harmed by mostly harmless injuries may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology.”

At our school, too, we ensure that we teach children how to be inclusive, how to sort out the inevitable issues that arise on the playground, and how to take measured risks. We think that risk should be transparent, and also that the appearance of removing risk is actually much more dangerous than making sure that risk is understood and managed. When a playground is perceived by everyone to be safe, then actual risk may increase. Our playground equipment is, or course, designed with proper fall zones, appropriate surfaces, and manageable equipment. But we will never claim to have removed all risk. It would not be honest or educationally sound, and we want our children to grow to be capable adults who are able to take reasonable risks. It is just a part of a healthy life.

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